Friday, April 20, 2012

Intellectual Property

There's something really hinky going on in the world today. It's all wrapped up in the term "Intellectual Property". The Free Software Foundation implore people to split it up into it's three main elements - Copyright, Patents and Trademarks. The term intellectual property should probably be seen as a summation rather than a formal term. i.e. people know what you're talking about when you say it but it should probably be avoided when put on paper. It's slang...

Anyway, I was watching another TED talk where a guy talks about "big history". He describes humans as having a great advantage in that we're able to communicate ideas across generations. Mice and humans have brains but humans are able to convey those ideas to future generations, or, even, each other.

Whether that be via the spoken word (the Hindu's have a concept of the spoken word being used before texts - "Shruti" - which translates to "that which is heard"), text, audio, video, poetry (think the Iliard and the Odessey), music (the self-pitying tunes of Christina Perri and countless others, the romanticism of Choplin in both love and death that all communicate that we're not alone), we communicate.

It all has value. Even that dreadful poetry/short stories that I wrote as a 16 year old about feeling horribly alone (this seemed to be a theme - me writing about having entered my Uncles room just before he died of cancer described me walking down an empty cold hallway on my own just before the event, or a poem about me being horribly tormented by my liking a girl who liked a friend of mine and not being able to say anything etc.) has/had some sort of value. At the time, a few people commented on the fact that it was truthful (I got a 90% on the Uncle bit) and how they had felt the same at times.

I blame capitalism - how do we measure value? We seem to measure it in a detrimental way - i.e. how much it costs us rather than how much value it gives us. A friend of mine was saying that his uncle owned a fruit shop. He had apples in 2 separate bins. One bin was labelled at $2/kg, the other was labelled at $5/kg. There was no difference in the apples - they'd all come from the same source. So he asked his uncle, "Why have two bins of the same apples at different prices?".

His uncle responded "Some people want to pay $2/kg. Some people want to pay $5/kg".

So when we think about ideas, we see it as "How much did the idea cost us?". Capitalism goes one step further and says "How much value can we make from it?".

Disney. I see it as almost a swear word. Mickey Mouse was created in 1928. I'd hazard a guess and say that he's THE most recognised character of all time - more so than Santa Claus and, heaven forbid, Jesus Christ (think in terms of other religions - there are loads of people out there who don't celebrate Christmas or Christianity).

Shown in the chart below (sourced from Wikipedia), is a history of the term (time after death - there's a difference between "corporate authourship" and an authour) of copyright (in America). The 1998 Act, known as the "Sonny Bono Act" is also known as "the Mickey Mouse extension act".
I've commented on this before. Disney had a lot of success based on public domain works (works which the copyright had expired). Snow White and the Seven Dwarves 1937, Pinnocchio in 1940, Cinderella 1950, Alice in Wonderland 1951, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men 1952, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954, Treasure Island 1959, Sleeping Beauty 1959, The Jungle Book 1967, Robin Hood 1973, The Little Mermaid 1989, Aladin 1992. I'm sure I've missed a couple.

The thing is, I don't think Disney has done anything wrong with these works. They did exactly what should be done with these works - they've made an interpretation of it and adapted it. For example, Alice in Wonderland is based upon both Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. And Aladdin is quite liberal (i.e. nothing like Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp) in it's interpretation but given the song "Arabian Nights" can be thought of as coming from book "One Thousand and One Nights" aka "Arabian Nights".

However, by doing their best to save their copyright on Mickey Mouse (it's interesting to note that Mickey Mouse is also trademarked), they're also restricting the works that become public domain and which can then be used to their own means.

Open Source actually relies on copyright. It only works because of copyright. The authour reserves the right to grant permission to copy works. Thus, if you publish under the GPL (General Public License), you're exercising your rights as a copyright owner.

If we are special because we're able to share ideas and improve upon them, then IP laws and the like create this interesting barrier which is counter to this idea. We're able to share ideas and improve upon them, but only after an influential company, such as Disney, have milked it for all it's worth.

As part of the Manaiakalani project, I was thanked for my input of my "Intellectual Property". I really don't see it as property. I learnt from others. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I've seen the quote around "I am what I am because of who we all are" - from the term/philosophy "Ubuntu" (not the Linux distribution - it's a word that's akin to the word "mana". i.e. the word conveys an idea for which there is no real English translation. The Linux distribution gets it's name from the philosophy. A bit like the end of American Gods by Neil Gaiman - "He is me but I am not him").

Post modernism in art points to the idea that there is nothing new to share. The only thing new is how we convey/present those ideas. So we take something, and we improve it or build on it, or change it in some way. This is how things progress. So by limiting ideas are we not limiting how we can progress?

Okay - so there's the counter argument that people have to eat. 95 years after they're dead... it's not enough that Disney has made cartloads of cash off Mickey Mouse - they've got to continue making money off that character. That has the feel of a stagnated business model to me. And okay - I would argue the benefit that Mickey Mouse is going to have to future knowledge. But just think about it. This includes scientific journals and the like. There's some really important stuff going on here.

Still... a free-trade deal with America...

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